Neiron Ball, Florida (6-3, 231): Ball played nine games (seven starts) as a senior before sustaining a season-ending knee injury, finishing the 2013 slate with 49 tackles (two sacks, three TFLs). It was a tough ending to an inspiring career. His life changerd forever on Valentine’s morning 2011 when he had to leave a workout. That night, he was in the hospital. “It was like someone was squeezing my brain,” he said. Ball was diagnosed with arteriovascular malformation, a rare condition where blood vessels in the brain get tangled and rupture. Befuddled doctors weren’t sure he would live. Considering both of his parents died before he was 10, the football team and coach Will Muschamp became a major part of his support system. He sat out the 2011 season but was back on the field in 2012, which made him a finalist for the 2013 Rare Disease Champion.
Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, Maryland (6-2, 257): Cudjoe-Virgil spent 2010 and 2011 at Division II Seton Hall, then sat out 2012 after transferring to Maryland. He missed the final six games of his junior season with a torn pectoral muscle, then the first three games of his senior season with a foot injury sustained during training camp. He started three games in 2014 with two sacks and 2.5 TFLs. He’s called the “Energizer Bunny” because of his boundless energy.
Xzavier Dickson, Alabama (6-3, 268): Dickson had a breakout senior season with nine sacks and 12.5 tackles for losses. He had just five sacks in his first three seasons. His ascension stands in contrast to how his junior season ended.
Bud Dupree, Kentucky (6-4, 268): Dupree was first-team all-SEC and earned some All-America recognition. He led all SEC defensive linemen with 74 tackles. He paced the Wildcats with 12.5 tackles for loss, including 7.5 sacks, ranking among the SEC leaders in both categories. Dupree, a likely first-round pick, recorded the second-most career sacks in school history (23.5) — the most among current SEC players. He was a no-show at the Senior Bowl. Dupree’s first name is “Alvin.” Why the nickname? “My grandma had a dream before I was born that everyone was calling me ‘Bud’ because I was playing football, and they were saying how good Bud was playing football and how good he’s doing,” Dupree told Athlon Sports. “My mom just went with it.”
Alani Fua, BYU (6-5, 234): In 10 games, Fua contributed four sacks, 7.5 TFLs and two interceptions. That fell short of the expectations of being the next Ziggy Ansah or Kyle Van Noy. But he’s a versatile player and good family man. His brother, Sione, just finished his fourth season as a defensive tackle for the Browns.
Geneo Grissom, Oklahoma (6-3, 263): After starting five games at defensive end as a junior, Grissom moved to outside linebacker for his senior year. He played in 10 games (seven starts) before a season-ending knee MCL sprain. He finished with 39 tackles, including 3.5 sacks and 6.5 TFLs, two forced fumbles and one interception. He missed 2011 with an injured foot and moved to tight end for part of 2012 before going back to defense. Grissom scored two career defensive touchdowns. Each time, he celebrated by crossing his arms to form an “X.” That’s in honor of his dad, who beat cancer.
Obum Gwacham, Oregon State (6-4, 235): Gwacham recorded four sacks, 5.5 TFLs and 28 tackles as a reserve defensive end. Those aren’t impressive numbers until you realize that he spent his first three seasons at split end. He never met his father until competing in a judo tournament when he was 16.
Lorenzo Mauldin, Louisville (6-3, 243): Mauldin moved from 4-3 defensive end as a junior to 3-4 outside linebacker as a senior. He was a hit, with 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for losses among his 51 tackles. Mauldin was second-team all-conference for his last two seasons, as he tallied 9.5 sacks and 12 TFLs as a junior. Incredibly, Mauldin got this far without much of a support system. With both parents in jail, he was passed around like a hot potato to 16 foster homes. Football would be his salvation, a passion sparked by one of his many foster mothers.
Mark Nzeocha, Wyoming (6-2, 232): Nzeocha played in seven games yet finished fourth on the team with 59 tackles, which included two sacks and three for losses. His season ended with a knee injury. In 2013, his return to linebacker after playing safety in 2012, he tallied 88 tackles. He was part of the Autobahn from Germany to Laramie. Nzeocha didn’t start playing the American version of football until he was 13.
Edmond Robinson, Newberry (6-2, 246): Robinson, an all-South Atlantic Conference first-team selection for each of his final two seasons, was Division II Newberry's leading tackler as a senior with 68 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, five pass breakups and two fumble recoveries. His 52 solo stops ranked second in the conference. He had 12 TFLs as a junior.
Jake Ryan, Michigan (6-2, 235): Ryan, a fifth-year senior, was selected first-team all-Big Ten and a finalist for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s best linebacker, with his 112 tackles including two sacks and 14 for losses. He also forced two fumbles and picked off one pass. As a junior, he tore his ACL in spring practice but was back in the lineup in late October. For his career, he started 41 games and is second in school history with seven forced fumbles and seventh with 44.5 tackles for losses. His grandfather played in the CFL, his father played for Wake Forest and a brother played for Ball State. From an early age, older brother Connor brought out the best in Ryan.
Martrell Spaight, Arkansas (6-0, 228): Spaight had a big senior season with a team-high 128 tackles. He added one sack, 10.5 tackles for losses, two forced fumbles and one interception to earn all-SEC first-team honors. Before going to Arkansas, he was a two-time All-American at Coffeyville Community College. The “little brother” nearly died at birth and cut his foot badly in a lawn mower accident.
J.R. Tavai, USC (6-2, 251): In 11 games, Tavai recorded 53 tackles, including 13.5 for losses and a team-high seven sacks. He played on the defensive line as a freshman and sophomore before moving to linebacker for his final two seasons. He was an honorable mention on the all-Pac-12 team in each of those seasons. His brothers played at Kansas and Hawaii. The quiet Tavai lets his play do his talking.
Shaq Thompson, Washington (6-2, 231): The winner of the Paul Hornung Award, which goes to the nation’s most versatile player, typically goes to a skill-position player and returner. This year, it went to Thompson, the All-American junior linebacker. How’s this for a stat line for the “running backer”: 81 tackles, five passes defensed, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries on defense, and 61 rushes for 456 yards (7.5 average) on offense. Thompson scored six touchdowns, two as a running back and four on defense (one interception return and three fumble returns). He rushed for 98 yards against Arizona State, 174 yards against Colorado and 100 yards vs. UCLA. Oh, and he also played baseball in Boston’s minor league system. While he couldn’t hit a curveball during an 0-for-39 stretch at the plate that included a mind-boggling 37 strikeouts, he was a hit on the football field for the Huskies.
Max Valles, Virginia (6-5, 242): Valles was third-team all-ACC by finishing second in the league with nine sacks and seventh with 12.5 TFLs, plus 55 tackles, eight passes defensed and three forced fumbles in 2014, his sophomore season. With one year at Fork Union Military Academy, Valles was eligible for the draft. The offense-minded Valles became a defensive star.
Tony Washington, Oregon (6-4, 251): The two-year starter put up back-to-back seasons of 60 tackles, with 7.5 sacks, 12 tackles for losses and four forced fumbles in 13 games as a junior and 6.0 sacks, 11.5 TFLs and three forced fumbles in 15 games as a senior. He was an honorable mention on the all-Pac-12 team as a junior but received no accolades as a senior. His touchdown on a fumble return against Florida State in the Rose Bowl was worth more than six points. Running through his mind were thoughts of his father, who died of a heart attack when Washington was a senior in high school.
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